American culture and the globalization of mental illness

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

Dhu al-Hijjah 03, 1422 2002-02-16


by Yusuf Al-Khabbaz

American culture is behaving like a disease agent and poisoning human minds. Recent studies published in a variety of influential Western medical journals indicate an alarming increase in mental illness worldwide. The traditional explanation of mental illness is that it is the result of chemical imbalances within an individual’s brain. This theory lends itself to the widespread medication of mental illness, yet it really only treats symptoms and may be obscuring other possible causes. In recent decades mental-health professionals have begun to supplement the 19th-century model of mental health that governed their work; this model sees all psychological phenomena as emanating from within the individual. The new model suggests that some causal factors emanate from outside the individual; in other words, researchers are discovering the socio-cultural causes of mental illness. With these insights to hand, many are beginning to point an accusing finger at American culture.

Articles recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) point out that the incidence of mental illness in America is increasing at an alarming rate. Compared to their parents and grandparents, many more Americans are suffering from depression, and they are suffering at younger ages. A report published in the Archives of General Psychiatry (AGP) found that the incidence of depression among American women has doubled since 1970. Linked to social change and environmental pollutants, many such disorders are also caused or exacerbated by the norms of modern American civilization, which include increasing social decay, poverty, greed and haste, as well as heavy dependence on chemicals. Other studies have found similar trends as American-style culture is increasingly adopted by the ‘developing’ world.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has found that schizophrenia has increased worldwide by nearly 50 percent since the second world war. Women seem to fare the worst under modernity. A recent WHO study looked at over a dozen countries and found women consistently having depression at rates double men’s. People born since 1950 are much likelier to suffer mental illness than their parents and grandparents, who grew up in the first half of the century: suggesting a connection with the rise of American-style consumerism, which began in the 1950s. The focus of some of the WHO studies was on developing nations whose dependence on modern Western medicine has increased in the same years; some speculate that while the ‘developing’ world is seeking Western ways and means, it has also contracted Western diseases. Similarly, increasing wealth in the ‘developing world’ has not eased mental illness; some psychologists now conclude that the globalisation of American culture and consumerism is the most probable culprit.

Exploring the connections between American culture and mental illness, researchers at Rutgers University, United State, have concluded that the longer immigrant communities live in America, the higher their incidence of mental illness. One long-term study published in the AGP tracked Mexican immigrants in America. It found that upon arrival in the US Mexicans had half the incidence of mental illness of their American neighbors. During the first 13 years of residence the incidence of mental illness was around 18 percent of the population, but after that time nearly doubled. The Rutgers researchers attribute this to the loss of Mexican values that provided stability in Mexico and in the initial years of immigration, along with their gradual replacement by American-style consumer-culture. Long-term living in the US brought with it increased drug-abuse, anxiety, depression and other disorders. The study concluded by suggesting that "socialization into American culture and society will increase susceptibility to psychiatric disorders." Further research is under way with other immigrant groups.

The hypothesis of the American cultural basis of mental illness is further supported by projections from the WHO, which are that by the year 2020 heart disease and depression will be the two most debilitating illnesses worldwide. Unlike the most debilitating diseases of the 20th century, which were caused primarily by bacteria, viruses and other organisms, the new diseases are caused by cultural behaviors. Heart disease is not caused by microbes; it is caused by various combinations of smoking, poor diet and stress. Similarly, depression is not a bacterial or viral disorder; it seems to be a disease caused mostly by the erosion of local cultural stability and the incursion of global cultural attitudes. As people become Americanised by cigarettes, junk foods, soft drinks, television and consumerism, they will become prone to mental and physical illness. Add to this the socially destabilizing effects of America’s other "great" contributions to the world – cars (car accidents are becoming a leading cause of death and serious injury in many countries), telephones and computers (both contribute to social alienation).

Related studies have also made connections between cultural instability, social strife and mental health. For example, as Lebanese culture and society was destabilized by frequent American-supported Zionist incursions during the past 30 years, the rate of depression in Lebanon rose to nearly 20 percent nationwide. War and invasion are not the only destabilizing factors, either. American-style free-market economic practice, especially deregulated competition and wanton consumerism, are also implicated in studies of depression and other mental-health problems. A Canadian study of addictive behavior concluded that socio-cultural dislocation brought about by ‘free market values’ is "a necessary precursor of addiction." Even the popular press has noticed such trends in declining mental health; the mainstream American newsmagazine Time has reported recently on the rise of angst and despair in America, linking them to a disconnection between what people need to be happy and what they actually have.

Ironically, the medical studies that support such conclusions are published in journals that are sponsored largely by pharmaceutical companies that are eager to capitalize on mental illness by opening new markets among doctors concerned by their patients’ worsening mental health. Americans have to be the most over-medicated people in human history. Virtually every American seems to be on some form of medication. During the cold war, there was heavy use of Valium, a tranquilizer that was prescribed by doctors to ease the stress of living under the threat of nuclear conflagration; no American bomb-shelter was without its long-term supply. Medicated parents gave birth to the sixties generation, who eschewed doctors but took a variety of illicit drugs. When the crack cocaine craze drew attention to the illicit drug epidemic in the 1980s, their use abated, but America’s drug dependence continued: anti-depressants took off, with doctors now prescribing Ritalin and Prozac to millions of severely depressed people of all ages.

The American epidemic of mental illness and the accompanying culture of medication feed on each other, and it is likely that further medical studies will establish this connection more strongly. But for those people who are seriously concerned with long-term wellness, the cultural connections to mental illness should also be explored. More pills are not going to cure the increasingly well-recognized ill effects of modern American culture, which is fast becoming global culture. As more people realize the debilitating effects of American culture, globalization will come to be recognised as the latest wave of Western imperialism, which has always wrought havoc, death and destruction on the peoples falling under its sway. While treating the symptoms of mental illness seems reasonable in the short term, to recover human health properly in the 21st century people worldwide will have to guard against the American-style culture being exported to their countries (perhaps even abandon American culture altogether), while finding other ways to treat already-existing ailments and to prevent further damage. This will have to include learning to relate to ourselves, each other and our environment in ways that are more rooted in non-Western cultural narratives and regional traditions than in western concepts of modernity and post-modernity.

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